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LSU a case study for promoting diversity post-affirmative action, former president says

The LSU Campus Mounds pictured here are the oldest known, man-made structures in the Americas.
Courtesy of Louisiana State University
Following a U.S. Supreme Court decision gutting race-conscious university admissions, the Biden administration has advocated for a shift toward holistic admissions to promote diversity. Louisiana State University is a prime example of the good that can do, its former president said.

This story was originally published on the Louisiana Illuminator.

Following a U.S. Supreme Court decision gutting race-conscious university admissions, the Biden administration has advocated for a shift toward holistic admissions to promote diversity. Louisiana State University is a prime example of the good that can do, its former president said.

LSU led the country’s most selective public universities in increasing economic diversity since 2011, according to data from the New York Times, increasing its percentage of Pell grant-eligible students 9%. The Pell grant is a federal program that provides tuition support for low-income students.

LSU’s shift toward holistic admissions standards, which deemphasized standardized testing and placed more importance on recommendation letters, personal essays and extra-curricular activities, came in 2018 under the direction of former President F. King Alexander, now a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University.

The changes were extremely controversial, with high profile alumni, including Board of Regents member Richard Lipsey, accusing Alexander of tearing down the progress the university had made in academics.

“I think that that was the biggest myth that was being thrown at LSU was that we were… I quote from what they said, that we must be ‘dumbing down the university,’” Alexander said in an interview with the Illuminator. “We weren’t in any shape or form. Our GPAs were just as good.”

A spokesperson for LSU said every freshman class since 2019 has broken records in terms of academic achievement.

Alexander said the success of holistic admissions not only vindicated him but serves as an example for the rest of the nation.

After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action, which effectively ended race-conscious admissions, higher education leaders have looked for other ways to ensure diversity on campus.

The Biden administration has stressed a need to continue holistic admissions practices. While race cannot be a determining factor, it can still be considered when brought up in a personal essay, for example.

Guidance put out by the Biden administration also listed a policy of making test scores optional as a strategy for promoting diversity.

Before LSU implemented its holistic approach, its policy was to reject applicants whose ACT scores were below the minimum, even if the student made up for their low score in other ways.

Holistic admissions has been championed as a way to increase economic and racial diversity, as standardized testing has been criticized for maintaining racial inequities in higher education.

LSU, a formerly segregated university that sits on the site of a former plantation, has a history of racial wrongdoing that leaders have struggled to right.

The arguments of those who vehemently criticized the holistic approach were grounded in racism, Alexander has said.

“In Louisiana, Plessy versus Ferguson is still alive and well and by that I mean the concept of separate but equal,” Alexander said.

Alexander said that due to holistic admissions, LSU increased African-American enrollment by 63% and Hispanic enrollment by 92% from 2015 to 2020.

LSU’s case indicates the university can make improvements in both academics and diversity.

At the time of the shift in 2018, most flagship universities were using a holistic admissions process. Since then, even more universities have adopted it.

The New York Times data included the 286 most-selective colleges in the nation. Only two other schools in Louisiana meet those criteria, Loyola and Tulane universities, both private schools in New Orleans. Loyola increased its share of Pell-eligible students 5%, while Tulane decreased its share 5%.